Recently, the Furman Center at NYU posted a scholarly give-and-take exchange around issues of suburban poverty, segregation, and the safety net as part of its series The Dream Revisited. Following insight and commentary on race and suburbanization by Alan Berube, Georgette Phillips, and Thomas B. Harvey, my piece in this series turned to how local suburban safety nets are composed.
Even though there is evidence that persons of color and those living in poverty in suburbs may not experience the same levels of segregation as their counterparts in cities, suburban governments tend to operate as if there is a trade-off between supporting local social service programs for the poor and maintaining economic competitiveness. Policies emerge, therefore, that prioritize economic development and residential exclusion over antipoverty assistance. Fragmentation of local governmental institutions matters as well. Suburban regions encompass dozens of county, school district, and municipal governance structures, each with their own set of responsibilities and priorities. The plurality of actors makes it difficult to coordinate activities across jurisdictions, even if funding and capacity are present. There are no quick fixes for these obstacles to safety net provision. For starters, greater federal funding of cash, in-kind, and social service assistance is necessary to help tens of millions of families cope with job loss and reduced work earnings. With funding streams increasingly restricted to direct service spending, there is need for increased federal investment in local social service administrative capacity in under-served suburban (and rural) communities. Another path may be to create collaborative “races-to-the-top” where the federal government incentivizes the creation of regional safety net capacity. Without effort to enhance local suburban and metropolitan-wide human service capacity, it is unlikely we will successfully reduce poverty in suburbs – a failure that will affect the future vitality of both suburbs and cities.